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Christian Laettner: Mentally Tough or Pain in the Butt?

christian laettnerIn nursery school one of Christian Laettner’s progress reports read: “Too much self-confidence.” Christopher Laettner was four years older than Christian. From early childhood, Chris tried to whittle Christian down to size, and whether it was hockey, football, or basketball Christopher always won and always gloated. That alone nurtured in Christian a deep resonant hatred for losing.

The Laettner’s last name was German, but his dad’s family was Polish. When Mike  Krzyzewski came to dinner at the Laettner’s in Angola, New York, it was authentic Polish fare. They had no proper dining room table so they flung a tablecloth over a Ping-Pong table and hung from the ceiling the sort of light auto mechanics or plumbers use.  When Krzyzewski walked in and saw the light he grinned. “Oh, a Polish chandelier.”

When Coach K glimpsed the skill and intensity with which Laettner played, he invited him to play at Duke and won the battle over Dean Smith, who also dearly wanted the kid. Coach K  realized he undoubtedly had a winner when, as a freshman, Laettner scored 24 points and hauled in 9 rebounds against Alonzo Mourning and the Hoyas. The only problem with Laettner’s competitiveness was that if teammates missed opportunities or played sub-par he’d swear, push, punch and yell. As the point guard, Bobby Hurley caught the worst of the abuse. In a 1990 game against Georgia Tech, Hurley and Laettner were screaming at one another so vehemently that Hurley almost got a ten-second call. I can still remember a few of those incidents because it was so rare for a Coach K team. Krzyzewski usually outlaws both showboating and dog-fighting on the court.

“I was kind of a whip-cracker,” Laettner says, “I was asked to do it and I was very good at it.”  When people began accusing Laettner of sheer ugly arrogance, Coach K warned, “Don’t mistake confidence for arrogance.” Just the same, K finally took the kid aside and asked him to be a bit less caustic: “Christian,” he said, “you don’t have to be so hard on your teammates.” Much later Laettner confessed that sometimes he was negatively vocal and this, at times, hurt his teammates more than it helped them.

But Krzyzewski was walking a sort of tightrope. He wanted his players to respect each other but he didn’t want to tame down any of Laettner’s intensity and incessant drive to win. K once said, “Christian’s a guy who won’t ever choke and that’s unique. He’s never afraid to make the play, be it a shot, rebound, pass, whatever. He wants to be there when the game’s decided…you’ve heard of guys who burn to win?  This guy’s got a forest fire inside him.”

In 1990 Duke met UNLV in the NCAA finals, and the Runnin Rebs annihilated the Blue Devils, 103-73 in the worst rout of an NCAA basketball championship. And Christian Laettner had to swallow that bitter score and experience the aftertaste for twelve months. Torture. Then in 1991 Duke  beat those same Rebs in the semis 79-77—breaking a 45-game UNLV winning streak. A few days later, Duke beat Kansas 72-65 for the national championship. Then the next year they repeated as champions.

In the 1991 NCAA tournament—against UNLV in the semi-finals Laettner scored 28 with 10 rebounds and  against Kansas in the finals he added another18 points and 10 rebounds.  In 1992, Laettner scored 8 points and hauled 10 rebounds against Indiana in the semis and scored 19 points and 7 rebounds in the championship against Michigan. However, the game everyone remembers was Duke’s overtime win in the regionals against Kentucky—a game Duke won 104-103 in which Laettner scored an incredible 31 points, along with 7 rebounds.

So, back to my question, did Christian Laettner possess supreme mental toughness or was he a basic pain in the butt?  Well, I think he was both. On the court he fought like it was total war and in the process at times he got carried away, both with opposing players and his own teammates. He could be arrogant and rude but few college players have matched his drive to win. In spite of an excellent team, would Duke have won back to back national championships without him? I don’t think so.